In a rare step, three former governors who opposed a controversial pipeline in the Pinelands are now trying to block the project by joining litigation against the agency that approved it.
The governors — Brendan Byrne, Jim Florio and Christine Todd Whitman — have filed an amicus brief in support of environmental groups that have challenged the state Board of Public Utilities approval of the 22-mile natural-gas pipeline through parts of the 1 million-acre preserve.
The filing is perhaps unprecedented. The former governors’ attempt to join a a legal action against a sitting administration demonstrating the unique regard they hold for the expanse of forest, cedar swamps, and groundwater reserves that has been called “one of the nation’s premier environmental treasures.’’
It is still unclear whether the appellate court hearing the case will allow the governors to intervene, but the state — the defendant — is taking no stand on their filing. As former officials, the governors argued that each played a key role in trying to protect the Pinelands and “the forces that threaten the success of the Pinelands program.’’ Byne signed the law establishing the Pinelands; Florio, then a congressman, wrote the bill that created the Pinelands National Reserve.
The project is one of the most controversial of more than a dozen gas pipelines either approved or pending in the state. South Jersey Gas would build the pipeline to enable the old B.L. England coal plant in Beesley’s Point to be converted to natural gas.
Backed by labor and business groups, the project reflects policies adopted by the Christie administration, which has aggressively supported expanding the infrastructure of gas pipelines, a strategy its says has reaped economic benefits to consumers and reduced air pollution.
In their 36-page brief, the governors acknowledged the importance of a secure and reliable source of energy for the state’s residents. They concluded, however, if the current decision by the BPU is allowed to stand, ‘’the result will compromise the integrity of the Pinelands program and contravene the balance of interests established by the federal and state’’ laws.
Allowing the pipeline to proceed would “fundamentally alter the clear goals of the Pinelands law, which balance key preservation interests of Pinelands residents,’’ according to the governors.
Greg Reinert, a spokesman for BPU, declined comment, citing the pending litigation.
The South Jersey pipeline won approval from BPU in December — the second time the agency endorsed the proposal. That action was necessary when the Pinelands Commission balked at approving the proposal in 2012.
The project was revived after the commission’s executive director, Nancy Wittenberg, ruled the proposal complied with the agency’s Comprehensive Management Plan.
That certification is the core of a lawsuit filed by the New Jersey Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey, saying the commission itself never determined whether the project is consistent with the CMP.
The governors also asserted that argument. “In enacting the legislation, there was no intent to remove the power to review significant development approvals from the commission and give that power to the executive director without commission oversight.’’
The governors also contended that the proposed pipeline route is inconsistent with the Pinelands program’s established balance between preservation and targeted growth.